I May Destroy You promised to be provocative, given that it springs from the mind of Michaela Coel (the creator, writer, and star of the hit Britcom, Chewing Gum, now on Netflix). Since the show revolves around sexual consent, I also expected it to be tonally different than her relatively lighthearted series, and yes, that’s the case. Yet the show is not a fully harrowing watch despite tackling difficult issues. It’s true that Coel brings a brazenly witty reputation to the table, although I still did not anticipate any humor and guessed wrong there. What I did expect is a sort-of blend of Unbelievable and Euphoria, yet this effort feels less clinical and exudes more warmth, respectively, than these recent treatments of sexual assault and violence. All three shows are very good in their own way, but I May Destroy You cements Coel as a fearless creative force, not to be ignored.
Coel’s multi-hyphenating again here as creator, writer, and star while adding executive producer and co-director to her existing mix for the HBO series (which will also air on BBC One). It’s dizzying, what she’s accomplished, with this disorienting and uncomfortable and tragic and triumphantly real series. As noted, there’s a darkly funny streak that tears through the 12-episode season of half-hour episodes, although this was neither engineered nor avoided (Coel even told the BBC, “I didn’t add humour, humour is always there; at every party, funeral and war, although often uninvited, she’s always there”). Well, this uninvited party “spikes” the show, akin to the drug slipped to Coel’s character (Arabella) by a rapist.
Here’s the thing, though: we’re not supposed to laugh during stories of sexual assault. For a reason: rape is absolutely no joke, but Coel’s navigating the post-#MeToo era, and she’s not afraid to make her audience feel uncomfortable. She’s also stunningly adept at weaving textured stories, where a survivor is not singularly defined by their own trauma. This is an authentic portrayal of her character’s experience, not only as a woman but as a Black woman and artist and fully-dimensional human, against an expansive backdrop, and yes, humor tiptoes into the space.
The setup: The London-based, 20-something Arabella is a carefree soul with a lively social life and a writing career-on-the-rise (she’s celebrated as a “voice of her generation”). One night while desiring a break from deadline pressure, she hits a bar with friends and wakes up feeling “off.” An hours-long gap in her memory turns troublesome, and it’s quite apparent that something is wrong, but she’s only snapped into awareness by a fleeing memory flash. The rest of the series sees her piecing together the mystery of who raped her and how to take action on said perpetrator. The show could be triggering to some viewers, but Coel so deftly handles the subject matter that there’s an overwhelming sense of catharsis by season’s end.
This setup is also is notable for a few reasons:
(1) The rape is based upon her own experience while writing Chewing Gum.
(2) Arabella’s a flawed and “imperfect” victim, and said portrayal will be controversial.
The first characteristic is what helps Coel grind her heels deep into an authentic portrayal of the potentially dicey second aspect. It’s an inherently risky approach, for sure. Yet Coel toys with the notion that sexual assault victims must behave in certain ways, lest they not be believed, almost as if to challenge the system that’s actually set up to make prosecution of rapists exceedingly difficult. Adding to her ways of f*cking with expectations: some disorienting aspects of the show. Some moments don’t seem real — but the rape sure as hell is real — and this appears to be subversive commentary on how survivors are often made to question their own versions of events.
Here’s where I come back to the notion that this show is provocative. It is that, but more than simply looking to provoke reaction, I May Destroy You is seeking to provoke a thought process. Other arcs intersect with Arabella’s main story, with other players and flashbacks and various iterations of the sexual assault theme. The central sexual assault is the most generally accepted definition of rape: Arabella was drugged by a stranger, who forcibly had sex with her. Other scenarios are at play, like a non-consensual encounter between two people who previously had consensual sex, or the removal of a condom in an otherwise consensual encounter. There are even more permutations to consider on this series, but underneath it all, there’s a collection of achingly human friends, who support each other as these questions (unfortunately) must be asked.
What this distills to the core, for me, is that Arabella, as a character, is multi-dimensional and resilient and triumphant through all she endures. She’s not drawn through a particularly sensitive lens, and that might be off-putting to some. Arabella seeks to avoid but must reckon with her trauma, but where I May Destroy You differs from other survival portrayals is this: this show does not brand survivors with their trauma. Yes, there’s an added layer to Arabella’s post-sexual assault existence, but it’s not something that other characters view as her defining characteristic. That’s how many sexual assault survivors are written, but Coel’s too crafty to let that happen to Arabella. Or to herself.
Coel, underneath it all, is a firestarter, and that brings me to one of the most striking scenes of the season. This takes place very late in the story, so I will not supply much context for the surrounding scene, but it involves Arabella dancing in a drinking establishment to one of The Prodigy’s most notorious tunes. She’s tearing through lyrics, limbs flying everywhere in controlled chaos and shouting, “I’m a firestarter, twisted firestarter!” almost as a dare. A dare to another character? Perhaps. A dare to the audience? Definitely. This leads to a complicated, sure-to-be-controversial flourish for the show, one that conquers trauma, but might start some fires in the process. Yet as with the rest of the season, Coel — who is a voice of her generation — undertakes her character’s actions with a fearlessness that’s almost breathtaking.
BBC1’s ‘I May Destroy You’ makes its HBO debut at 10:30pm EST on Sunday.